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How the Catholic Church Found Itself in Such a Mess

The most recent period of scandal involving Catholic clergy and the sexual abuse of minors began after the reporting of the Boston Globe in 2002.  The daily barrage of investigative articles on numerous priests of the Archdiocese of Boston engaging in criminal abuse of children shocked New England.  To make matters worse, the Globe Spotlight investigation uncovered evidence that the bishops and cardinals of the Boston Archdiocese allowed this abuse and promoted it by covering it up and not reporting it to law enforcement officials.  They simply transferred the offending priest or placed them on “sick leave” without telling the parishioners the true nature of the problem.

Although the Boston revelations were the primary catalyst for this latest scandal, a few decades prior there were problems in Louisiana with serial predator Gilbert Gauthe and in western Massachusetts with James Porter.  At that time, these were treated as isolated incidents of shocking, aberrant behavior.

Since the early 2000’s there has been a steady flow of Grand Jury Reports and Attorney General investigations in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states that demonstrated the Catholic Church’s problem with the sexual abuse of children had passed into a crisis.

Typically, Church officials reacted as if in crisis mode-hunkering down and initially attacking those who accused priests of abuse and the bishops for covering for them.  The bishops fought to defend their vast holdings and their reputations with little success.  They implemented the Dallas Charter, vowed “no tolerance” for those who abused and yet the situation didn’t improve.

Yet, in the month, we read that former Cardinal McCarrick will face criminal charges for his sexually predatory behavior and Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill has resigned from his top position at the US Conference of Catholic bishops for compulsive sexual encounters with men in spite of his vow of celibacy.  The problem isn’t abating and the Church has no clue how to resolve it.

Some observers have blamed the Catholic Church’s intransigence on mandatory celibacy for transitional deacons, priests, and bishops.  Some argued for the inclusion of women in the priesthood.  However, none of these solutions address the problem of pedophilia and ephebophelia (The 2004 John Jay Study found that over 80 percent of clerical sex abuse victims since 1950 were young men and not pre-pubescent children.)

In the two decades I have been representing and advocating for sexual abuse survivors, I have taken the depositions of priest offenders, chancery officials, and bishops none of whom seemed to have a clue as to how to prevent the sexual abuse of children.  When asked the question, most deponents made reference to psychological counseling and closer monitoring and screening of candidates.  But one should ask the question, “Is that all that can be done?”  Why is it that the Catholic Church has had such an issue with the sexual abuse of children and teenaged boys?

There is one possible response that has not garnered particular attention or support but may need to be considered.  It is an examination of the historical/spiritual development of the Catholic Church since its inception.  Some will argue that the Catholic Church moved away from the early Church fathers such as Isaac the Syrian, Ephraim the Syrian, and Abba Dorotheos.  These fathers wrote treatises on the spiritual condition of humans and how to combat what they referred to as passions.  These came to the West from such figures as John Cassian who wrote about the 8 Deadly Sins or Vices, offering a description of the particular ailment and a corresponding spiritual prescription.

Now this was abandoned by the western Church and the breach between East and West became permanent after The Great Schism of 1054.  Rome became a political player with a government, an army and vast riches of territory and money.  Rome had already spurned these earlier writings and engaged the secular world with philosophy.

Why is this an important historical development?  For those who accept the premise that Christianity has had profound insights into human character, the nature of sin, and the notion of redemption this is a potential response as to how the Catholic Church has become mired in a sexual abuse crisis that is profoundly spiritual.

The early church fathers wrote about the nature of sin and how spiritual healing can come about through a very specific method of ascetical practice.  One’s thoughts were a primary focus of concern because the fathers believe that all human behavior, good or bad, originates in the thoughts.  Secondly, but just as important, not all thoughts originate from within the human person-some originate from external forces.  These notions and practices were completely lost and abandoned by the church in the west, governed by Rome which operated as a secular seat of power interested mainly in growing its influence in control.  (An insightful example of this is given in Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.)

I have known enough seminarians and priests to realize that the seminary provides a solid intellectual formation in philosophy and theology but doesn’t provide much concerning the spiritual life.  Psychology and therapy can only offer certain answers but is loathe to delve into the spiritual life, the context in which these men are supposed to operate and lead people to God.  That’s at least the idea in theory but the old Latin adage, nemo dat quod non habet (you can’t give what you don’t have) is a truism that rings especially loudly in this context.

I offer this as food for thought-an alternative for reflection and discussion.   I do think it merits a discussion since nothing else seems to explain this precipitous downfall of a once important and proud institution.

The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Howard Kaye
    Howard Kaye

    1. We know that abuse of various forms of younger people in the church is widespread: consider the Magdalene Laundries matter, the recently-revealed abuse of children in Canadaat schools run by the church, the emotional and physical abuse of students in parochial schools, and so on.

    2. The question is, WHY? What's going on in all these cases? Is there a common thread? Particularly since such abuse is clearly contrary to the very explicit, clear teachings of Jesus.

    3. In their 2006 book Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes, authors Thomas Doyle (priest in good standing, at least at publication time), A.W.R. Sipe (Benedictine monk who left the monastery to become a psychologyst) and Patrick Wall (former priest turned consultant) cite research that found that 66% of American priests were psychologically and emotionally underdeveloped, 8% were maldeveloped, and 18% were still developing emotionally and psychologically (p. 58).

    In other words, the men entering the priesthood are just not healthy and normal. (One can't help wondering what research on nuns and monks would find.) No doubt the prohibition on forming intimate relationships makes achieving normality even more difficult.

    4. The sex drive is no doubt especially difficult to alter. So another question is, why would a "normal" individual seek to enter the priesthood (etc) given the sacrifices that entails--especially when one could be married and serve God in many other ways?

    5. Doyle et al state that the church has known about abuse since its founding--yet has always covered up. Clearly, until recently, the authorities were more interested in protecting the church than the parishioners--until those matters became so widely known--and parishioners learned their children were victims.

    6. Several school districts around the country have issued documents aimed at children and parents discussing and defining "inappropriate touch". I think it is highly revealing that the church and archdioceses still have not done this.

    7. Much more about the church could be fairly and honestly criticized, but this is enough for a starter.

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